This is a story. It is not historically or factually true (It started out 100% the truth and then it shrugged itself out of my control.)
If you wish to read straight through it is 21,885 word long. Please note that I have read it through a couple of times and so any grammatical or typing mistakes are to be ignored.
I Join the Army
My Uncle died the same day I joined the Army. I had been told he was sick and hadn’t long to live so I should drop in and see him. He had always been very close to me. He had three daughters and always pined for a son who died as an infant. I think he thought of me a bit like that.
Four weeks before I was due to sign on the dotted line I dropped in to see him. He was in hospital at the Freemasons Hospital on Victoria Parade in East Melbourne. It’s just a short walk from there to St Pat’s Cathedral. Some time earlier he had an eye removed and when things got worse they suggested removing one lung but in the end there was no chance.
– I’m going to join the Army, Uncle –
– So I believe –
Now I wasn’t too sure about my reception. Both my father and he had been conscientious objectors during the war and although my father worked as a schoolteacher, my uncle had worked for Douglas MacFoster as a civilian materiel purchaser.
– What made you want to join the Army? –
– It’s a long story – I said
– I’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go. So start way back and fill in all the details –
So I sat down, he closed his eyes and I told him.
Around about 1975 I had a job in the Commonwealth Employment Service and because I was a qualified schoolteacher I sort of gravitated to being the Youth Employment Officer.
– What has all this to do with the Army? –
– It is quite relevant but now I’ve lost my train of thought. And anyway I thought you might have been asleep. –
– Then you would have been wasting your time talking. Just tell the story and I’ll let you know when I fall asleep. –
-I worked there for a couple of years and made some friends and had to put up with kids applying for jobs without wanting one.
I waffled on and on for a while telling him all the different circumstances of kids applying for non-existent jobs until a very nice nurse told me to go away and let my uncle sleep.
– Your Uncle needs to go to sleep now – said the nurse who had been standing behind me for I don’t know how long. – come back tomorrow and tell us more.
The next day
The next day my uncle was sitting up bright as a button.
– Good morning, Uncle. How are you today? –
– I’m well. Get on with the story. The way you ramble on I….. –
– OK. I was about to tell you where the Army came into things. –
One of the jobs I’d had was to liaise with other Government Departments concerning career advice. The most important of these was the Army. The Vietnam War ended in 1975 and it was now 1976 and the Army was recruiting to build a new army that was to be a training institute. The Army was top-heavy and they explained that they needed young men to enlist to be trained as tradesmen to form a skeleton on which to build a new army if it was needed.
Regularly on the last Wednesday of each month in would walk Staff Sergeant Moroni. And one such Wednesday I made a stupid and fateful comment.
“OK, Moroni,” I said. “If you reckon the Army is so crash hot a place for jobs see if you could talk me into joining.”
What are your qualification? What did you do before you joined the CES? What’s your income now? How old are you? Have you ever been a Communist? Have you ever been a member of a radical organisation? And so on and so on. And then he said that I could qualify as an Education Officer starting as a Lieutenant and going on to Captain et cetera. So home I went with a stash of papers and pamphlets and thought I’d see what my wife thought and she thought it had some quite promising aspects to it.
– And I guess that’s the end of the story! –
– Well it is if that’s all you want to know. But there’s a bit more if you want –
– Get on with it then. –
– All right but a little back track. –
– I could have guessed. –
Before I joined the Public Service I had to fill in time waiting and so I got a job as a shunter on the Victorian Railways. A shunter’s job was to work in a crew attached to a small locomotive and run around all over the North Melbourne Goods Yards breaking up goods trains and putting them back together again. So for example a train with twenty carriages of all the same stuff might have arrived from Sydney and some of it was destined for Adelaide, some for Mildura, some for Geelong and so on. Do you get the idea?
– Of course I get the idea. I might be dying but I’m not stupid.-
– It was a rhetorical question! Anyway I had a lot of fun and I had to join the Victorian Railways Union, which at that time was affiliated with the Communist Party.
– May I interrupt at this juncture? –
– Up to this point I haven’t noticed a lot of reluctance on your part, my dear Uncle. So if you want to interrupt feel free to go ahead.-
– Was one of the questions the Army recruiting officer asked you, “Have you ever been a member of a Communist Organisation? –
– Radical Organisation. The question was have you ever been a member of a Radical Organisation?-
– Same difference. Was it? Was that one of the questions?
– Yes –
– I’ll tell you later. I’m going now. See you tomorrow it’ll be my last visit ‘cos tomorrow is the big day. I join up tomorrow morning and I have to report to Bandiana in the afternoon. –
I said goodbye and he was asleep before I closed the door. Poor old bugger.
The next morning I said goodbye to my Father and Mother and to my wife. Today was the day I joined the Australian Army. My wife would follow when I was settled in. “Make sure you say goodbye to Uncle Foster. You might not see him again.” That was my father. He didn’t know I had been in to say goodbye the last five or six days. Often a father isn’t always the one a son relates to. I walked in to Vic Barracks (Headquarters for Southern Command) and went through a few formalities. I forget everything from that time. It was all a blur. I was given my instructions and sent on my way. RAEME Training Centre, Bandiana. City of Wodonga on the Murray river. Three and a half hours if you don’t stop to say goodbye to an uncle. I stopped to say goodbye to my uncle.
-Good Morning Uncle Foster. I am now officially a Lieutenant in the Australian Army.-
-I’m glad to see you.
-So this is the last part of the story about me joining the Australian Army.
The last interview was in Canberra. They paid for me to fly up and they had no idea that it was the first flight I had ever made where someone else had picked up the tab. If I didn’t get the job I would have at least got a free flight to Canberra and back. Russell Offices in Canberra houses the Defence Department. I had no idea where it was but the Com Car driver knew. I was ushered into a room with a lot of people in Army uniform. Some had scarlet flashes on their collars. All looked very serious and big time. One man was in a civilian suit and he said nothing.
I don’t remember any of the questions or any of my answers. No idea at all. Except at the very end when the guy in the suit just looked at me and asked, “So, what were the guys like to work with on the shunting crew?”
I had been warned by Sgt Moroni in Melbourne. ‘There will be someone from ASIO on the Canberra board. You’d better hope he doesn’t ask you anything.’ When I filled in my application form I did not include the bit about working on the Railways. It was two months out of my life. It was of no significance. The ASIO guy just nodded and smiled. ASIO. England has MI5 or MI6. America has the CIA. We have ASIO. It doesn’t matter what the letters stand for they are the spooks. He knew I wasn’t a Communist. He knew I had only worked there for two months. He knew I hadn’t put it in my application. He just nodded and smiled at me the Smarmy Bastard. What he was doing was letting me know that they knew everything.
– I told you. Communist Organisations. I said that was relevant. –
– I know you did, Uncle. I know you did.-
What I did not know was that I was going to meet that smarmy smiling bastard later. I was going into the Army to teach English and History and Maths to apprentices and they set the spooks onto me. And I was going to meet him again. And take the smile off his face. Or so I hoped.
– And that is it. Uncle. I love you. I’m off! I’ll see you later.
– Goodbye lad. You’re the last person I have to say Goodbye to. I can go now. –
I didn’t register what he said. I kissed him on the cheek and got in my car and went to Bandiana. I rang my father when I got there. I was a married man and had been to Europe and back, but he still wanted me to let him know I’d arrived safely.
– I’m here Dad. I made it.-
– That’s good John. Your Uncle Foster died about three hours ago. I hope you got to see him.-
-I did, Dad. Thanks. –
Uncle Foster died three hours earlier. I must have left him about three hours ago. That’s what he meant when he said ‘I can go now.’ He hung onto life until I had said goodbye.
I learn about Rule 25
I now do not have Uncle Foster to take me up on points of interest. So I am left to tell the story to you. I also must add a small editorial comment. During my years I spent in the Army I visited or worked in many different barracks. I spent time in Queensland at Enoggera and Canungra, in New South Wales at Kapooka and in Victoria at RAEME Training Centre Bandiana, Watsonia and Puckapunyal. It makes no difference if you don’t know what and where because I am not going to tell you the correct place that something happened because I don’t want anyone to get into trouble. To a certain extent I am not all that sure if some of the things I’m going to tell you are covered by the Official Secrets Act. I know I signed a form but I never read the full regulations and probably by now that charming bloke from ASIO has retired and is living comfortably in Fiji or Bali. But more about him later.
I began my career by going to various courses to learn how to salute and iron a shirt, how to write documents according to JSPs (Joint Services Publications) but I learned most from old Sergeants. Mostly I learned from Sergeants at Bandiana and Mt Martha where the Apprentices School used to be.
I want to tell you about something that happened ne fateful night I was Duty Officer. This hasn’t anything to do directly with the main story but it will tell you a bit about how you learn things in the Army. The Duty group was always one Officer and a Sergeant and a young soldier. Usually nothing happened. At first I used to wander around the barracks making sure everybody was in bed and asleep and feeling very important at three o’clock in the morning knowing that the fate of the world was in my hands. Eventually I found out that was a load of rubbish.
There was a very loud noise in one of the barracks and we discovered that a young trainee had removed most of his head with a shotgun. I won’t describe it, but it was terrible. The Sergeant, who had been in Vietnam, took charge of things but let me think I did. It was what came later that is the story.
After the mess had been cleared away and the body removed and all the base had gone back to bed, we, the Sgt and I, started working on the report. The young lad had left four letters in sealed envelopes. The first one was to his mother who was a widow and lived in Tasmania. That was a relief because it was the Duty Officer at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart who would have to knock on the poor woman’s door in the early morning and tell her that her only child was dead.
The second letter was addressed to the other fellows in the barracks apologising for waking them up.
The third was a real beauty. It was addressed to “The Investigating Officer”. In any formal Army investigation there are a number of set points of enquiry. He seemed to have them covered. He explained how he had managed to get the gun onto the base. He had purchased it and stashed it at some friend’s place. He did not say who the friend was but said that the friend would not have known it was there. He explained that he dismantled the gun and brought it onto the base one piece at a time. He had only brought one cartridge onto the base so we did not need to look for any more he explained, because he only intended to use the one. He then told the Investigating Officer that there was nothing in Army procedures that could have prevented him from doing what he did so the Army did not need to feel responsible.
But the last one was bad. It was addressed to a young girl in one of the nearby suburbs. She was seventeen and he said,
“My Darling, Why did you do it to me? You know how much I love you.”
I read the letter and thought how the girl would feel if she found out that she was the reason why he did it. I did not think a young seventeen year old needed to live with that. I handed the letter to the Sergeant. ”Do you have a daughter Sarge?” I asked.
“Yes, two. One is sixteen and one is nineteen.”
“How would you feel if one of them got a letter like that?”
“A letter like what, Sir?’ he said. I looked behind him and saw some paper burning in the open fireplace. He saw the look on my face.
“You write up your report, Sir, the way you think you should. One way you dump me in the shit and the other way we both save that little girl from any more hurt than she will already get. It’s your choice, Sir.”
“I stood up and went and shook his hand, “Thanks for the advice. And thanks for fixing the fire. I’m not sure if I would have known what to do but I’m glad I know now.”
“Well, Sir, you just learned rule number twenty-five in the code book.”
“What is rule twenty-five?”
“It’s not in writing, Sir. But you just learned it.”
I was to meet that Sergeant again.
I learn a bit more about Rule 25
At another base there was a little problem. As an Education Officer on this base I taught Science to some of the Apprentices. One of the apprentices bought a car. Now that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But the story is very simple and it happened a lot.
Jones was a boy from the bush. He told me he had never been in a town with more than a couple of hundred people in it before. He was in my Science class and he came to see me about the car problem. His father wanted him to come home when ever he had leave because his mother was dying of cancer and she missed him. Dad sent him a few hundred dollars and the boy saved up his pay every week and eventually had $735. So he went in to town to a used car yard where he spotted a Ford Ute for $700. Straight away in he went.
But. Here comes the ‘But’. But the smooth talking, smooth walking car salesman talked Apprentice Jones, the young, honest, open hearted boy from the bush, into buying a souped up, Monaro with mag wheels and a V8 motor for only $695 deposit and very easy weekly payments for the balance over seven years. It was purple and only 5 years old. Imagine going home to show all the boys at the footy club.
Apprentice Jones drove it back to base. Apprentice Jones parked it in the company car park. Apprentice Jones’ Company Commander, a Captain with three year’s experience since graduating from Duntroon and a hell of a lot of uncommon common sense asked Apprentice Jones to sit down with him and work out how exactly he was going to pay for it.
Apprentice Jones nearly burst in to tears and the Company Commander came and saw me and we said that he should take the car back – he had only had it for one hour – and buy the Ford ute for $700. So I went in to town with him and we went to the car yard and the smooth talking bastard suddenly became Mr Nasty and said he had a signature on a contract and stiff biscuits baby.
So we went back to base and I went to see the Colonel. Now I don’t want to mention names but this Colonel was a good bloke.
We explained the situation. In the end Colonel Smith (I’ll call him that because it makes it easier) rang the car yard and asked the manager to take the car back and let the boy buy the Ford Ute for £700. He had the phone on speaker so we could hear it all.
“I’m sorry Colonel but we do have a contract and it is binding so there’s not a lot we can do.”
I won’t relay the whole conversation but I will just give you the general idea.
Colonel Smith told the car yard that he understood their problem but that in the circumstances he still wanted the boy to be dealt with fairly and he thought that maybe the car yard was being a bit hard. The car yard manager wouldn’t budge. However the Colonel went on. He suggested that under the circumstances he was going to make it a BSO, which he said stood for Base Standing Order, that anyone stepping onto the ground of such and such a car yard would be charged with disobeying a lawful command and fined one week’s wages and confined to barracks for three weeks.
I heard all this. I meant that no Army member would ever buy a car from that car yard again. And then I heard something else. The man on the other end asked the Colonel if it was legal. The Colonel rsaid, “Yes. It comes under Rule 25.”
The Manager of the car yard asked for the boy to bring the Monaro back and they would give him the Ford Ute.
After Apprentice Jones left I mentioned rule 25 to the Colonel.
“Where is rule 25, Sir?’ I asked.
‘Well,” he said “It’s not in writing.”
“No. But I just learned it again.”
“Who told you about rule twenty five?”
“A Sergeant up at Bandiana”
” He must have been a good man.”
“Yes Sir. He was. He taught me a lot.”
“Thank you Captain. You did well today.”
I walked out of the Colonel’s Office happier than I had been for quite some while.
I Apply for a Discharge
After about five years my personal life was coming apart and I thought I should resign my Commission and become a civilian again. Normally a discharge is a fairly straight forward affair and the Colonel asks a few questions and you go down and talk to Major Admin, have a chat with the Resettlement Officer, which I avoided because I was the Resettlement Officer and the date is set and that is the end of that. But that doesn’t always happen.
There seemed to be a holdup and I went in to see the CO (Commanding Officer) and he beat around the bush for a while and said there was a bit of a problem from Canberra’s end of things and I needed to go up there and sort it out.
So here I was having another free flight to Canberra. I found a Com Car waiting for me and I didn’t say anything because he seemed to know exactly where to take me. I’m in Russell Offices and a long corridor and I knock on a door and someone says for me to come in and sitting at his desk was that same smarmy ASIO bastard that I had met before.
“Good Morning, Captain Shunter. And how are we today?”
“What the hell are you involved for? You didn’t find any reason to stop me joining the Army”
“No. But I have found a reason to stop you leaving.”
“What on earth have I done to make you stop my discharge?”
“Rules and Regulations have to be followed correctly.”
“What rules and Regulations?”
I am struck dumb for a moment but soon recovered.
“What do you know about Rule 25? The only people who ever mentioned it to me were the most honest and decent men I ever met in the Army. What do you have to do with Rule 25?
“It’s my rule. I drafted it, I selected the people who know it and it’s my rule.”
“Show it to me. I want to see it in writing. Right now.”
“You already know what I’m going to say. Rule 25 isn’t written down. But you know it already.”
I slumped in my chair. I wanted to get up and get out but it was obvious that there was more to come.
“Now I don’t want you to interrupt. Sit there and listen. I have here reports from two of your COs and one from a sergeant. It seems that on a few occasions you have handled yourself well. In the first case of the suicide you had no idea how a young officer should deal with it. But you thought on your feet and you got the best result you could.
On another occasion you were convinced that a young soldier was being dealt with badly and you went straight to the only person who had the moral authority to solve the problem. It just so happened that on both occasions one of my men was there at the time to see it for themselves.”
“What do you mean ‘your men’? What has ASIO got to do with this?”
“I’m not ASIO. I am from Section Twenty Five.”
“What the hell is Section Twenty Five?
“I can’t tell you but as of now you are a member.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You can’t tell me. I have a right to know.”
“I told you. I can’t tell you. Except to say that we are a small part of the Intelligence service particularly working at finding thieves and vagabonds within the Army. There is a problem with some men who have returned from overseas and feel that they no longer have a role to play in this society. Most of them deal with it but some have stayed in the Army and are using their knowledge and expertise to embark on a career of naughtiness and crime. It is our job to stop them.”
“What’s all that got to do with me.”
“Everything. You are going to stay in the Army. You are going to be really angry with the Army for not granting your discharge. You are going to make friends with all the wrong people and if you ever tell anyone we will laugh and say you have a personality problem.”
“And if I say no…….”
“You can’t. You signed up and you are still in.”
I sat and all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind. Mr Smarmy Bastard just sat and let me go on thinking. I knew there was little point in fighting this. They had me and I was stuck.
“Ok, so how do I know who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?’
“You already know two of the best there are. And when you get a transfer to your next posting you will find those two men waiting for you. But you are never to let anyone know. To keep things under wraps the your Colonel might have to appear to treat you badly. But don’t worry, we need you and we’ll look after you. Now go back to your position and wait. But before you leave Canberra go to the “Canberra Times” and get a copy of the paper for 22nd of April 1976. It will be interesting reading on the plane.
Goodbye. I don’t exist.”
He ushered me out the door and closed it.
I went to the Library in Canberra and got a copy of the paper that he had mentioned and copies of the two Melbourne papers.
I’m Back in The Army
The plane from Canberra touched down on time and I was driven home in another Com Car. It was late and the family was in bed, but Natalie wanted to know. How long before my discharge came through was what she wanted to know. I didn’t get much of a chance to tell her the bad news because there was a knock on the door. It was the base Duty Officer. He was a recent Duntroon Graduate but a good enough bloke.
“Sorry mate. But this came through five minutes ago and I was told to hand deliver it immediately.”
“Read it to me. I’m too stuffed.”
“I think you should read it yourself, mate.”
“Oh, Bugger! What the hell do they want now?”
He handed me the signal and I read it and threw it to Nat. She read it. Squealed, threw it back at me and ran into the bedroom.
“Thanks, Mate,” I said. “I think I’d better go and save my marriage.”
He left. I went in to Nat. She was not crying. That was a bad sign. She was furious.
“Those Army Bastards won’t discharge you and you have to report to that place tomorrow morning! Absolutely no bloody way.”
Twice in one go. Nat never swears. She is cross.
“You go. You never wanted to leave your almighty Army and your almighty hero buddies. You go. Pack your bags and go now or you’ll be late up there at that God forsaken place in the bush. But if you aren’t out of the Army in two weeks I’m gone and the kids with me. Now pack up and say goodbye and don’t try to talk to me tonight. I’m going to sleep.”
We’d had similar conversations before and I knew it was pointless saying anything. What she didn’t understand was that I was just as angry as she was. What right did they have to send me a posting order at eleven o’clock at night and have me report three hundred bloody miles away tomorrow.
I packed my gear, packed the car and kissed the kids goodnight. They were asleep and they never knew. I went in to Natalie and I was frozen out. So I said something stupid like I’ll talk to you later and I left.
I never talked to her later. My lawyer talked to her lawyer and that was about the end of it.
I drove all night and got to the base about an hour before the sun came up over the mountains. I reported to the Duty Officer. He said nice things and told me I was booked in to room 15 on the top floor, so I went over to the Officers’ Mess, found the room and unpacked my gear. I had a shave and went down to the dining room just in time for breakfast. Most of the members who lived in were young recently graduated officers. There were two WRAAC girls there and an old Education Corps Captain who had been around forever. I knew him but he just grunted. He was usually badly hung over in the mornings so I didn’t take offence.
Next was a trip to see Major Admin who I knew from before and he was pleasant. He sent me to a meeting room down the hallway and I went in.
“Good morning, Sir! Lovely to see you again.”
It was the Sergeant from the time when the young kid killed himself.
“What the hell are you here for?” I was starting to get a bit annoyed.
“To keep an eye on you and to fill you in and to be you close liaison with him in Canberra.”
All of a sudden it started to clear in my head.
“Are you in on this “Rule twenty bloody five” caper? You are aren’t you? And who’s the CO of this unit. I hope it’s not the almighty Lieutenant Colonel bloody hero of the battle of Long Tan. Is that bastard in on this game too?”
“Sir, if you have finished the answer is yes. He is your CO. And don’t ever effing well talk about him like that again or I smack you in the face. We know you’re cross. But this is a big job we have. And what’s more he is quite a fan of yours”
“What do you mean, ‘a big job we have’? Who is ‘we’, and don’t tell me it’s that ASIO guy in Canberra.”
“It is and you’ve been selected to be a part of it right from the start. So, I guess I should tell you a few home truths. Sit quietly and listen. It’s a long story. And by the way we are sorry about your Uncle Foster.”
I could have screamed if I wasn’t so angry.
“Don’t you bring my uncle in to this. He’s dead and buried and that’s it. So just back off or I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Listen Sir. And please don’t interrupt unless I ask you a question. I am not your Commanding Officer but in a couple of ways that you don’t need to know, I out rank you. What did Uncle Foster do during the last war?”
“Nothing. He was a conshie and didn’t join up.”
“Wrong. Your Uncle was on General MacArthur’s staff. Wasn’t he? He was a Materiels Purchasing person.”
“How do you know this?”
“Your uncle worked quietly behind his desk and he was the only civilian who could walk in to MacArthur’s office without knocking. Don’t get angry with us for where you are right now. Your Uncle recommended you for this job, although he didn’t know the details. It wasn’t anyone else’s fault. So you can stop being angry with us. Uncle Foster is responsible.”
There wasn’t a lot I could think of to say right about that minute. And then the Colonel walked in.
I get my Orders
I jumped up to attention. “Sir!”
“Sit down, son. And at ease. Has the Sergeant filled you in?”
“Yes and No, Sir. I feel like he’s left out an awful lot. Can I ask a couple of question, Sir?”
“Yes. You can ask a whole bag of them but I don’t promise to answer them. Go ahead.”
“The Sarge says he outranks me?”
“Not outside this room and not while either of you are in uniform.”
“And when we are out of uniform?”
“When we’re out of uniform he outranks both of us. Let me explain. The Gentleman you so neatly referred to in your last chat with your uncle, as that ‘smarmy faced bastard from ASIO’ is in charge of a very secret group attached to ASIO but only for administration purposes. He is the boss and don’t ask me for his name – I don’t know it. Sarge, here, doesn’t know it either.”
“Just a sec, Sir. How do you know what I talked to my Uncle about?”
“The nurse who was in your Uncle’s room all the time is one of us. And don’t ask any more but the smarmy bastard and your Uncle both worked together during the war and they both set up Section 25. That is our official designation. Sarge, your turn.”
“Sir,” he said, addressing me. “Did you read the newspaper about the robbery?
The newspaper I had picked up in Canberra had a front-page story about the Great Bookie Robbery. A number of men broke into the Tattersals Club when Melbourne’s top bookmakers were settling accounts after a major race meeting. It was the largest armed robbery in Australia’s criminal history at that time. My involvement in the aftermath is the matter of this report.
“So what does that robbery have to do with me? I was nowhere near The Tattersalls Club that night. In fact I was in Adelaide and I can prove it.”
“I’m sure you can,” said the Sergeant. “Let me explain. The police know who did the job. They know who it was. What no one seems to know is how they got the sub-machine guns. We have a fairly good idea about that as well, but no one is talking. We want you to find them.”
“You what? Me? To start with I know nothing about weapons. I’m a teacher in uniform and that’s all.”
“Sir, Will you or will I?” he was addressing the Colonel.
“No you go ahead. You know it better than I do.”
“Right Sir,” and the Sergeant started to explain. “Captain, I happened to be on secondment to Army School of Health a while back and one of the Warrant Officers game into the Sergeant Mess and told us all about a rookie Officer who had just fixed up a smart young Duntroon Grad. Do you know what I’m talking about? No! OK I’ll go on. Apparently someone can put all shots from a Browning pistol on target and not miss and can also arrange to exert a lot of pain onto the wallet of a certain Officer who should have been charged with Assaulting a Lady. Still don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“OK. Yes I do. But what have all these bits of luck, I seem to have, got to do with me being kidnapped by you guys and set to work looking for crooks? “Because, John,” and the Colonel took over, “Because you seem to have an ability to get the soldiers to talk to you and confide in you, but at the same time you maintain your dignity as an officer except when another officer has no dignity and then you do what a lot of us would want to do. And you get away with it.
“Now we are pretty sure the guns that were used in the Bookie robbery came from here. But all checks have been done and there is nothing missing. We have narrowed it down to about four of five blokes. One is a WO2 and the others are Corporals. We’ve set them up to have to do a refresher course in Physics. Apparently their records were lost when we had a little fire in the office and they are very, very cross with the Army.
“So you are going to take them for a Physics course and you are going to be as angry with the Army as they are. I’m sure you can put on a good act.”
“I won’t be acting Sir. I’m still bloody angry. You’ve just destroyed my family and nothing you, or the Sarge, or that guy in Canberra can say will change that. But I’ll do the job and then I’m out. Right? How long have I got?”
“Three months. And you can tell all the other officers how angry you are and especially with me but they aren’t to know the real reason why.”
And he turned around and walked out. I made my way to the Education Offices and sat through a briefing from the ED Corps Major. He was also a bit annoyed that one of his Science teachers had to leave on three months compassionate leave the day before. He hoped I was up to it.
So did I.
Meeting the Sergeant
The Colonel has just explained that the guns from the Great Bookie Robbery probably came from this base. I have been asked to find out how it was done and if possible who did it.
The next morning I had my first class with the unlucky ones. There were about fifteen of them and I later found that the class had been stuffed with some genuine students so that the suspects would have little cause for suspicion.
I walked into the room and was greeted with a most surly array of soldiers. There was no spontaneous salute of respect for an officer and I saw this as an opportunity.
“Well. I see we have a few people who don’t want to be here. Sergeant , as the senior person here you’d better explain the problem without actually stepping over the line.
“We don’t need to do this course but the Bloody Army, Sir, begging your pardon, Sir, has shafted us big time by losing our papers and we need the papers if we are to receive any decent postings or for these other blokes any promotions, Sir. Is that enough, Sir?”
“Yes, Sergeant. That is enough. And you’ll find life a lot easier if you loose that bloody attitude for starters. I have a very good idea how you feel. I have a discharge pending and was looking forward to spending the next three months on the beach in Bali. But the “Bloody Army”, as you so disrespectfully called it decided to keep me in so that you and your mates could all get a little piece of paper because you want a promotion. Well, gentlemen, I want out and you want to stay in and get promoted. Now tell me who has the greatest cause for being angry? And don’t answer that.
“Starting from now we are all going to get on well and you can all stand to attention correctly when I enter the room or none of you will get your precious piece of paper. Is that understood?”
The Sergeant stood up, at attention. “Sorry Sir, I was out of line. It won’t happen again, Sir”
Round one to me! And I started the class.
The Start of a Plan
If the smarmy bastard in Canberra, who is now my unofficial but real boss is of the opinion that at least one of the men in my Science class had something to do with obtaining the guns that were used for the Great Bookie Robbery, then I had better start working on a plan and I should also be careful.
I sat down and started a list of requirements.
Firstly I needed to establish a closer relationship with the class.
Secondly I needed to live off the base.
I needed a ‘wife’ so I could qualify for married quarters.
And finally, for the time being, I needed a couple of guns to stick on display.
I arranged to meet with Sergeant Monroe, (I had finally been given his name).
“Here’s a list of requirements. Number one I’ll handle myself but the others I’d like some help in getting them done sooner than now if you can arrange it.”
I was expecting an argument but all I got was a gentle, “Will tomorrow be O.K.?”
I really wanted my wife to come up and stay but I got a curt “No!” so the Sergeant said he’d organise something. The next day I was told that married quarters had become available in town and my ‘wife’ would be very happy there.
I cleaned out my room in the Offices’ Mess and moved into my married quarters – a fully furnished house with a display cabinet with a MK3 Owen gun and a Thompson (Thommy) machine gun. I was quite surprised when Monroe told me it was a very good copy that the Viet Cong had made in small numbers. He didn’t ask what I needed them for and I was quite pleased that he accepted my request without question.
The next surprise was my ‘wife’. You remember I told you about the nurse that had been with Uncle Foster. She was the one who had relayed all my conversations to Section 25. So I can’t say she made my little heart leap for joy and I sensed that she was a little embarrassed herself. I let her have the double bed in the main bedroom and I slept in the ‘kids’ room. Every morning she would leave the main bed unmade and tidy up my room so it looked unused. I got the impression she was a fast thinker and had things worked out.
Now all I had to do was work on the class. So I tried a little ruse that was a copy of something that had happened to me the first time I worked with a group like this.
Way back on my first posting I went in to take a Maths Class with a group of infantry soldiers who needed a piece of paper. On this day I was a bit down and they spotted it.
“Good morning, Sir. You don’t seem to be you usual cheerful self. Is there anything we grunts can do?”
I decided to tell them the story from the night before.
“OK. I’ll tell you. Yesterday when I got home, I kicked off my shoes and dumped my uniform, went to the fridge and got a can of beer.”
“As one does.”
“Yes, Corp, as one does. My wife came in and had a bit of a complain about that.”
“As they do.”
“Yes Corporal, as they do.”
“And what was her suggestion? They always have a suggestion.”
“She thought I needed to get a hobby.”
The whole class then went into major discussions and offerings of suggestion, none of which appealed.
“Excuse me, Sir!” said a very quiet young soldier who had never uttered a word in class. “My dad collects beer cans. Did you know there is a club and they have a magazine?”
Now in Australia at that time beer was a very state by state situation. In Victoria you could only buy Carlton products, in New South Wales there was only Tooths and Tooheys. Queensland had Four Ex and the other states had their own as well.
The Corporal who could really think fast stopped all the general babble and said, “That, Sir, is a great idea. I’m from Tassie and I’ll get my dad to send me up some Cascade, and young Will here, who has so brilliantly solved our esteemed Maths teacher’s problem, comes from Western Australia and I know he has some Swan Lager stashed in his locker. And when you finish tonight duck across the border and get all the NSW beers and your hobby is up and running.”
So that night I went home. I kicked off my shoes, dumped my uniform and told my wife that I had thought about what she has said and that I had decided that I would start a hobby.
“That is so good, Darling. When are you going to start?”
“Right now,” I said, and went to the fridge and opened a can of beer.
Then I explained what the hobby was and she did not speak for two days.
Anyway, that is all in the past. Maybe I could try something like that to get my class of gun thieves relaxing with me.
The Colonel helps
I had a chat with my memory and asked it for an idea and we threw some ideas back and forth and we think we have a plan.
I saw the Colonel in the Officers’ Mess on Sunday afternoon and put a bit of my plan to him. One aspect of it needed his help. I was going to send him a request for my class to be given access to the Armament Wing’s collection of old weapons and I wanted him to deny my request in fairly abrupt language. I started to explain and he said he would rather not know the details, which suited me fine because I wasn’t too sure of the details myself.
On the Monday I decided that with only a couple of weeks left I needed to push things along. So I went into my class with a lesson plan that would give me a ten-minute gap at the end that I would need to fill in.
When the lesson was over I sat down and told the men to relax. Then I started to chat about hobbies and I told them story about my wife’s suggestion about hobbies and how it had all panned out. They thought it was a big joke and just when I thought I might have to steer the chat my way one of the men did it for me.
“Do you still collect cans, Sir?” he asked.
“No, I don’t. I decided it was a bit tame and now I collect old Australian Army weapons.”
“Gee, Sir. Have you got many?”
“Yes, A few.”
“If you like old weapons you need to look at the collection we have over in Armaments, Sir.” It was like Christmas. That was the Sergeant. That was my target. I’m glad I’d talked to the Colonel the night before. As we had always been taught, “You never fail if you follow the six ‘Ps’”. (Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.) I think my plan is coming together.
I wrote out a note addressed to the CO asking for permission to take the class to the Wing to view the Weapons Collection. I explained that there were many aspects of Army weaponry that could be used to illustrate many of the Science elements and laws that we were studying and I thought it would be beneficial to the men’s education.
“Take that to HQ and see if you can get to hand it to the Boss.”
The Sergeant walked of smartly with a huge grin on his face and the rest of the men were excited. It could mean a whole lesson without having to do any real work.
A few minutes later the Sergeant returned.
“Gee Sir, you have really picked a bad day. First of all the answer is ‘No’. Secondly I was told to tell you that next time you want to make a request for a ‘Primary School Outing’, you have to send the request using correct protocols and not little notes. This is not a summer camp and the men can learn what they need to learn without going and playing with old guns. Have you done something in the past, Sir, to annoy the CO? He nearly put me on a charge just for taking the message. I’m glad I got out of there.”
I was delighted. It was better than I could have hoped.
“Ah well that’s a shame. I hope the “B” has forgotten by this afternoon or I might have to miss drinks. But not to worry I’ll think of something.”
Again, another of the young soldiers gave me the answer I wanted. The older men wouldn’t have dreamed of asking, but the young ones were still a bit wet behind the ears.
“Sir, could we come to your place and see your guns, Sir?”
“I’m not sure. And I only have a couple with me. Most of them are locked up in the country where my Dad lives. I’ll think about it.”
They rushed off to their next job. They were late and I’d probably get a quiet talking to by the Major in charge of their wing. But that makes it even better.
My ‘new’ wife helps too
Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, my pretend wife had not been lazy. With only a rough idea of my plan she seemed to outguess me on everything. My gun display case had been moved to a room that she had organised as a boys’ playroom. She’d gone out to all the Salvo stores and other Op shops and bought in a whole load of gun magazines and a few copies of ‘Sports Illustrated’. On the wall was a photo of me holding an AK47 that I had never seen. She had the special ops people in Canberra fake up the picture and even I was taken in by it.
When I told her that night that I was going to have a Bar-be-cue on Saturday she didn’t act like all the wives I’ve known. She just smiled with a nearly sarcastic smile, and said, “Yes my darling. Of course my sweetness. A BBQ will be just what this marriage needed. And I suppose the wifey dear is to do all the cooking?”
“No. I am going to get the men to ask their wives to organise food. You are supposed to be really cross that we didn’t get our discharge and you are not being very cooperative. But when all the girls are here you will take them under your wings and sow the seeds of Army discontent.”
Actually she was being very cooperative. I didn’t let on my entire plan but she went along 100%. But then I suppose it was her job. I was still a bit suspicious of her, after all she had been spying on me all the time I was talking with Uncle Foster, but I was starting to like her a little bit. It wasn’t all that difficult. She was a woman, she smiled when I came home from work, and seemed to mean it and she didn’t complain about cooking and washing my clothes. Yes. I had to admit it. I was starting to like her.
In the morning I told the class that there was a BBQ at my place, the girls to bring food, the boys to bring beer and nobody was to bring their rank. In the Army, and I suppose in every military organisation in the universe, soldiers wear their rank insignia on their uniform. Some men, and women, need the patches on their sleeves or on their shoulders to let all those below them know that they have authority. But there are others who carry their rank on their bearing. These men are the ones who take control at the right time. You remember I told you about that Apprentice who killed himself and the Sergeant took control over me. I was wearing rank on my shoulders, he was wearing a lesser rank on his sleeves and yet he out ranked me in his understanding and command.
If no one was to bring their rank to the BBQ, either on their uniform or in their way of addressing each other, then we would find out who was the real leader of the group.
“My wife won’t want to come, Sir,” said one of the older men. “She is so pissed off with the Army she never goes to anything that is Army.”
“OK. Fair comment. But you tell her that if she does come she can spend the whole afternoon bitching with my wife. As I told you, we were supposed to be in Bali right about now. D’you think she’s happy to have a bunch of gung ho soldiers in her house? D’you think she’s going to stand up and salute whenever you walk in the room. Forget it soldier. Your wife may be pissed off with the Army. You wait ’til you meet my wife.”
“Sorry Sir. I’ll see if I can get her to come. She’s not a bad person – just not a good Army wife.”
“You said it soldier.”
I told Ramona that night and she laughed. It was the first time I had used her name. I knew I had better be careful.
Saturday morning dawned clear and hot. Ramona was quite excited. Last night she told me her name wasn’t Ramona but she wouldn’t tell me her real name. Ah Well, never mind. I’m not sure if she’d done this sort of thing before but there were fire-lighters and fire-wood all waiting and she’d made the BBQ look totally messy as if I was a slob and I’d never tidied up in my life. Very perceptive woman, that. But I think I should take my mind off ‘Ramona’ and get on with being Canberra’s favourite amateur spook.
Just as I’d looked at my watch for the twentieth time the doorbell rang. It was about 15 minutes before the hour and although I was anxious I was surprised that someone was early. It was Sergeant Foster. “Don’t worry about me being here. I won’t stay long but the Colonel asked me to tell you we are all very happy with how things were going but we want you to be careful. Also, I think you should know that Ramona is ‘with child’, as they say in the classics.”
“She is pregnant? Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“No, you dopey Education Officer and we all thought you were clever. Being ‘with child’ is Section 25 code for carrying a concealed weapon. She didn’t know if you should know but Canberra said to tell you and she now knows that you know. I’m off. Have a nice BBQ.”
“RAMONA!! Come here. Now,” I shouted.
“The master called?”
“Yes. The master called. Why on earth do you have to be carrying a gun? This is just a party and I want to have things go smoothly.”
“Because, John,” she said and this was the first time she had used my name and her attitude was quiet and serious. “Because if the person, or persons, who were involved, as we think they were, are going to be here at this party, then they are dangerous people. Already three of the original gang have been killed. And killed by other members of the gang. We have to be careful.”
I sat down. Hard. I’d been playing a game up until now. I was thinking I’d be clever and all would work out. But this was serious.
The doorbell rang. Outside was about half the class and most had a wife or girlfriend. The young soldiers came as a group and only two had a girlfriend. The others all had beer. The fire got going, one or two people had a small glass or ten of beer and the talk was all Army. But whenever there was a sigh of exasperation from one of the wives Ramona jumped in with a quick explanation of how, “John and I aren’t all that happy about the Army either.”
She would then go on and on and soon everyone was bitching and grizzling.
Sergeant Petcher saved the day by asking if we were going to see my guns and I hoped Ramona wouldn’t show them hers. But no, she just herded all the men into the ‘Den’ and took the ladies off somewhere for a session of ‘girl talk’.
The first question anyone asked when I opened the case and took out the Owen gun was, “Does it work?”
“No it doesn’t work, I’m sad to say. The recoil spring is broken, but other than that it’s in perfect condition.”
I noticed as I said this that Sgt Petcher and Corporal Culver were talking quietly but out of earshot. Then I pulled out the Tommy gun. I was sure the Vietnam Vets would recognise it so I told them to keep quiet and I asked the young ones if they knew what it was. Some thought it might be a Sten gun but they didn’t know.
I asked the others and was surprised that only three of them said it was a Thompson. So the old guys talked about the fact that a lot were used by the Yanks in Viet Nam and even they were surprised when I said that this gun wasn’t American.
“Wadda ya mean it ain’t American. You just agreed that it was a Tommy gun.”
“It is actually a copy of a Tommy gun but it was made by the Chinese.”
Then the guns were handed around, back and forth and the guys finally wandered back to the beer and the cold sausages and then began drifting away home.
Nothing more was said about guns and after they were all gone the two of us did a major tidy-up and went inside for a quiet coffee. I was a bit disappointed that the ‘gun talk’ had dried up so quickly but Ramona told me not to worry.
“Those men deal with guns all day and for you they are a novelty. If something is to come of it then something will. But you just have to go on as though it was just a normal party.”
She was right. I expected the whole deal would be laid on a plate.
Ramona kissed me on the cheek and said “Goodnight Soldier” and went off to bed. I wished she hadn’t done that.
I didn’t sleep well that night for a lot of reasons.
One or two steps forward.
tOn Sunday morning I was on Base. It was my turn as Duty Officer and it was good to actually feel like I was doing my normal job. I wandered through the OR’s mess where all those living on base ate.
“How’s breakfast?” I asked in my normal Duty Officer’s way.
“Are they feeding you well?”
“Do you miss your mum’s cooking?”
“Where are you from?”
And I got the usual answers:
“Yeah, Good, Sir.”
“All right, but I bet it’s not as good as in the Officers’ mess.”
“No, Sir, my mum’s a lousy cook that’s why I joined the bloody Army.”
“I’m from Burrumbeet. In Vic, Sir. Bet ya don’t know where that is.”
And I gave a few well chosen responses:-
“Don’t you believe it, kid. You guys eat better than the officers and better that the Sergeants. Ask anyone who’s done kitchen duty over there. They’ll tell you.”
“Well when you home home you can teach her something.”
“Burrumbeet. Just a bit south of Waubra. You poor buggers haven’t beaten us at football for years. Of course I know where Burrumbeet is.”
And then I wander to the next table and start again. It’s relaxing and helps for relationships during the week when it’s all “Yes Sir, No Sir, three bags full, Sir.”
Then I got to Cpl Culver’s table. He treated me as though I was a stranger. Most of yesterday’s BBQ lot did the same. They had sort of worked out that it was not something to be broadcast. But as I moved into the kitchen to check a few things he pushed his chair back and knocked my foot. He jumped up and apologised and I walked away, but he came with me.
“Might have a chat with you later, Sir. About that Owen Gun of yours. Might be able to help. You be in the duty room in an hour?”
And off he went. Little nod of the head.
An hour later I was in the Duty room and he came in and said, “There’s a bit of a blue up in W1 Sir. Someone needs to have a look.”
“Sarge, could you get up there and take Apprentice Jenkins with you and see if you can sort it out.”
Culver smiled, “Nice one Sir. Sir I was thinking about that broken spring and I know where you might get one.”
“That’s good. Are you interested in guns Corp?”
“Not bloody likely, Sir. I killed one VC in Nam and that’s one more than I ever wanted to. He was only about twelve at the time. No Sir, I hate the bloody things. That’s why I’m doing the course with you. I want to get a Motor Mechanics course so I’ve got something to go to when I get discharge.”
“I noticed you and Sergeant Petcher having a quiet chat when we looking at the guns yesterday. Is this his idea?” I hoped not. Petcher seemed a fairly decent sort of a bloke.
“Oh, that. No, Sir, he is worse than me about guns and that. In Nam he was in mine clearance and saw his best mate ripped to shreds by a mine that he was supposed to have cleared. He was just saying that he wondered what the young guys would think if they had seen the shit that we saw. No Sir, but if you want to fix that gun of yours we know a guy who will do it for you but no one has to know who told you.”
“Is this a shonky deal or is it on the up?”
“Look Sir, the Sarge and I reckoned we would just point you in the right direction and then you could make up your own mind. But it has to be during the week and you have to be Duty Office or you wont get in.”
“Can you tell me now? I don’t know when I’ll next be Duty Officer.”
“No Sir. Petcher said I was to ask you if you’re interested and then he’ll tell you tomorrow during ‘smoko’.
“Thanks Corp. You tell him I’m interested.”
But don’t tell him how interested I am, I thought.
I ask Ramona for help
Being Duty Officer meant I wouldn’t get home until knock off time on Monday. But I desperately needed to talk over a few things with someone and I couldn’t ask to see the Colonel – not on a Sunday night and there was no way I could come up with a reason to call Sergeant Monroe so Ramona had to be it.
After evening meal when it was a bit quiet, all the messes had been cleaned and inspected we were all sitting in the Duty Room – Me, Sgt Wilson and Apprentice Jenkins – and just chatting. Suddenly I slapped my uniform pocket and started fussing around in my bunk.
“Lost something, Sir?” asked Jenkins.
“Yes, all the work I needed to prepare for tomorrow’s classes. I’ll have to get my wife to bring it in.”
“When she comes in, Sir,” said Sgt Wilson, “Why don’t you take her up to the mess and buy her a drink. We’ll look after things here for a bit and we can always ring you if war breaks out.”
I rang Ramona and asked her to bring in my work brief case and she knew it was important because I kept all my work in the Education Wing and not at home. She arrived in fifteen minutes and I took her up to the Mess.
“It’s started,” I told her. “I am going to be told about someone who fixes guns but it’s a bit dodgy. I have to be Duty Officer. I don’t know what that has to do with it but is seems to be pivotal.”
“What’s that mean? You have to be Duty Officer?”
“Well I don’t think I’ll get to see who I need to see unless I am the Duty Officer.”
“OK so volunteer to do a Duty Officer sometime this week and you’ll find out.”
“My dear naive ASIO spy lady, you don’t just volunteer. No one in the Army volunteers to do an extra Duty Officer especially so soon after tonight.”
“Then ask the Colonel to order you to do one extra.”
“Nope. That’s Major Admin’s job.”
“Then do something naughty and then they’ll have to make…”
“…that’s it. You are a clever thing.”
“What can you do that isn’t against the rules but will make them cross enough to give you an extra duty?”
“It can’t be against Army Standing Orders. But it could be something against an unwritten rule of the Mess.”
“You mean like getting drunk and punching out the barman.”
“Exactly! Magic! Go home and I’ll see you tomorrow night. Thank you. You’ve done it again.”
Monday morning was the RSM’s parade. The RSM, or Regimental Sergeant Major, is the senior Non-Commissioned Officer. He answers to the Colonel and no one else. On most bases it is said that even God has to ask the RSM for permission to perform miracles. I’ll give you an example of the relationship between the RSM and a junior officer. When I arrived on base for my first posting I was green and enthusiastic. After a week or two I was on my way from one building to another and the RSM was just strolling along and we sort of bumped into each other. Not physically. He came to attention and saluted me most respectfully. I was a Lieutenant with about ten days experience. He had been in Viet Nam and before that in Borneo and other places nobody remembers. He’d probably had more that twenty years and he was a top bloke.
“Good Morning Sir! How are you finding it? It’s a lovely spot, isn’t it?”
“Yes, thanks RSM. I’m getting used to it.”
“Can you find your way around the base easily enough?”
“Yes, RSM. I think I’ve got most of it under control.”
“Have you been into the ORs club yet? They have a little shop and every Tuesday a young lady from town comes out and sets up as a hairdresser. Very nice she is too. Nice build if you get m’ drift.”
We saluted each other and I said, “Thank you RSM, I’ll see her first thing tomorrow.”
The RSM had just told an Officer to ‘get a bloody hair cut’. But he told me in a very gentle way. And we always got on well after that. We understood each other.
But as I was saying it was the RSM’s Parade and officers were not required and so I went down and asked to see the Colonel.
“Good Morning Captain. How is your programme proceeding?”
“Very well, Sir. But I need your help once more. I was Duty Officer last night but I need to be Duty Officer again sometime this week. Is there someway you can tell Major Admin without making anyone suspicious?”
“Did you have anything in mind?
“Well Sir. My ‘wife’ suggested I get drunk in the Mess and punch the barman but I’m not sure if that’s not a bit extreme.”
“That would do it. I’d be forced to put on Duty Office for a fortnight for that. But it’s quite a good suggestion as long as you tone it down a bit. Maybe just be rude to the barman. Then I’ll throw the book at you.”
“Thank you Sir. I think I’m going to be told something important very soon.”
“Good. At the first sign of anything really concrete I want to see you. From then on I want to be in on every step from then on. And don’t go off half-cocked. This has the chance of getting ugly.”
“Thank you Sir.”
He was a good man to have backing me up. I then organised to see Sergeant Monroe and I told him everything that had happened at the BBQ and then on Sunday.
“Everything is working well it seems.”
I hoped it would keep working well. It is only in cheap spy novels that the hero gets everything right every time. I was waiting for something to go wrong.
After having had my chat with the CO I was looking forward to going home at the end of the day. I hoped that Ramona would be pleased to see me and I hoped she had missed me being away for the whole of Sunday and Monday. In my heart I was thinking it was time to change the sleeping arrangements. It seemed a waste to mess up two bedrooms when only one was necessary.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
I started easily.
“The boss said he was impressed with your idea about getting loaded in the mess, but he thought punching out the barman was a bit extreme. So I thought I might head back to the mess for a bit later on and see how I go. Would you like to come with me and watch my Academy Award winning performance?”
“Actually tonight is out of the question. We are having a special dinner tonight.”
Be still my beating heart. Is she thinking what I’m hoping she’s thinking?
“Tonight my husband is coming to stay. I’ve been telling him all about your task and he’s really looking forward to meeting you.”
“And I’m looking forward to meeting him, too. (and knocking his block off.) Well, I’d better get changed.”
I walked into my room. I flopped on my bed.
And I think I sulked for about half an hour. No! Things only go well in novels. Real life is often a lot different.
Dinner at my place
Why is it that when you are with someone you admire, someone you would like to reach out to and touch, someone of considerable beauty and dark raven hair and who sleeps in the room next door, why is it that these women all seem to be married to weedy little wimps with halitosis? And why is it that these wimpy little weeds all have hugely influential jobs and they refer to the Prime Minister in phrases like “when Tony was at school we used to hang out together at the such and such bar in Greenwich Village or Soho or Brunswick”? And why is it that the raven haired beauties seem to sit transfixed by said wimps total existence?
I am sorry to say I don’t have an answer to any of those.
But I sat politely at dinner and ate my vegetables like any good child should and I made sure my face had etched upon it a look of total wonder and admire. I asked deep and penetrating questions and received well phrased answers. He asked me inane questions that must have been penetrating and I answered him with enough truth to convince him and as much total nonsense to confuse him and all the while Ramona sat at the guru’s feet and dribbled.
Oh Ramona! Well you turned out to be a bundle of laughs didn’t you.
Just as we men were sitting down for an after dinner whisky with a dash the phone rang and I jumped up to answer it. It was a pimply little weed with a speech impediment trying to pay his way through university by working for a market research company so I said “Colgate” and hung up.
“I’m terribly sorry Ramona, but that was the D.O. at base. I need to get there ten minutes ago. Bruce, mate, sorry to rush of but the fate of the world rests in the hands of the meek and humble. Very pleased to have met you in the flesh. Ramona told me so much about you.”
Ramona saw me out to the car and leaned in the window and whispered in a very sexy voice, “You are a bastard.”
I drove up to the Officers’ Mess and was pleased to see that quite a few of my fellows were there and in particular the PMC who is the President Of the Mess Committee and in the Mess defers to no one but the CO.
My plan was to pretend to get drunk and make a pig of myself. The way I felt just then there was a strong chance that I wouldn’t be pretending. So I ordered a drink and sat at the bar and sulked. After about half an hour I began to think clearly. I am always amazed by the way alcohol has a tendency to improve one’s Intelligence Quotient by about ten points and at the same time to lower once sense of cowardice. So there was little shock when I slammed my hand loudly on the bar and told the barman in a relatively loud voice that if he didn’t serve me a lot more quickly I would put him on a charge.
At this point the PMC marched me into his office, sat me down and told me that he would recommend that I do an extra Duty Office on the next day. He then asked me to hand over my car keys. He rang the Duty Room and asked for the Duty Driver to report to the Mess to take an officer home. Unfortunately the Officer’s car would not start. I thought that was a nice little touch.
I was dropped off at home. On the way I had convinced myself that Ramona had set the whole thing up hoping that I would be more likely to act naturally.
She hadn’t. Pimple Face had gone home and the Raven haired beauty had turned into the Morgan la Fay.
I went to bed and sulked – again. But I had at least accomplished my mission for the day. Unfortunately no one congratulated me. No one at all.
After the rain had stopped
When I woke the next morning there was silence. If you have ever been in the jungle at night you will know the full cacophony of noise that a jungle has – from the tiniest crickets and other insects to the calls of the night birds and the sound of every one of the thousand animals that wake up when the sun goes down. Sometimes there is the wild roar of a major predator but always the absolute blanket of sound. Then there might be a sudden rifle shot and in that instant of time there is absolute and total silence.
There was silence when I woke in the morning. No clattering of breakfast dishes, no hair-drier in the bathroom. Nothing! Even the neighbours were silent. I showered and shaved and went to work. Ah well. It was a dream that faded with the sunrise as dreams invariably do.
I went to work and the mornings admin notices advised all and sundry that Captain Gordon RAAEC was Duty Officer from 1535 hrs on this particular bloody day until 0745 hrs on the next particular bloody day. Duty roster amended on order of the Commanding Officer. I wonder if the class would notice. I especially wondered if Sgt Petcher and Cpl Culver would notice.
I went to class and the lads were all there but no one said anything to indicate that they were aware. That is, of course until the unit Adjutant, Captain Mary Moffat ran into the room, in civvies, and rushed at me and hugged me and planted a hugely unfamiliar kiss on my open mouth and said, to the amazement of the whole class, “Captain, I love you. Thank you for volunteering to do my Duty Officer tonight.”
At this point, Sgt Petcher, with great presence of mind and an impeccable sense of the dramatic called the class to attention.
The class stood and the Sgt called, “Morning, Ma’am.” and saluted.
Madam Adjutant flushed a slight shade of magenta and said, “Thank you men. At ease.”
Then she continued as if nothing would ever phase her.
“Captain Wonderful, you have save my life. It’s my fiance’s birthday tonight I was going to miss it because of Duty Officer. But you have taken over. How can I repay you?”
There were a number of quiet but audible suggestions from the class and the response from Madam Adjutant was a simple, “Not bloody likely, Sergeant.”
“Well,” I said, my mind running on avgas, “If you are in the city, and you are near Elizabeth Street there is a record shop called ‘Batman’s Record Library’ and they have old records and 45s and if they have a copy of “Ramona” by the Bachelors you could buy that for me. It was a big hit in 1964.”
“I shall make sure Captain My Saviour. Thank you. And thank you class. At Ease.”
She had class that lady. And I had an idea that will come later. But maybe I’ll let you in on my idea. I have plans for Ramona.
After the lesson had finished, Sgt Petcher followed me out.
“Maybe you should inspect the ORs’ kitchen very soon after ‘knock off’, Sir. Me and the Corp have some info you might like.”
“Thanks Sarge. I’ll be there.”
The rôle of the Duty Officer
I forget most of the nit-picking tasks of the Duty Officer. However at the top of the list is the requirement to make sure that the ordinary soldier eats well and that the kitchen is clean. So if the D.O. – that’s me – walks in to the kitchen at any time of the day, from ‘knock-off’ through to ‘lights out’ nobody will be at all suspicious.
I arrived at the Duty Room about ten minutes after the duty Sergeant and the duty dog’s body to be greeted by a gentle, “Get up the boss’s nose, did ya, Sir?”
I knew it was all a part of my initial plan and so I grizzled and said that it was easy to get up peoples’ noses around here with some of my fellow officers as they were. It would have been the last type of comment I would normally make but I decided to milk it for all it was worth. As it was I had checked out who the Duty Sergeant was and found out that he was a colleague of Sgt Petcher, so carrying on my supposed negative attitude would have been expected.
But what I wanted to do was inspect the kitchen. In I went and Cpl Culver was the duty mess steward and he was waiting for me.
“Good afternoon Sir. Can I get you a coffee? I’ve just put the perk on. And Charlie.” he shouted to one of the younger stewards, “Get the Captain a slice of that apple tart we’re having for dinner tonight. The poor old officers don’t get tucker like this.”
I thanked them both and sat down and the Corporal sat down with me.
“I haven’t a lot of time, Sir, so I’ll have to be quick. At the back of Armament Wing there is a large room which everyone calls ‘The Annex’. It was used during Nam but most people have either forgotten about or never knew about it in the first place. It’s run by Captain O’Hanlin and he sort of thinks it’s his all to himself. If you walk around the Wing you’ll get the idea that the back wall is the end of things but there’s a whole big room behind a door with a padlock on it and it just looks like a large fuse box inspection door. There are some of us who know that one of the keys on the Duty Officers bunch of keys will open that lock. When you go in don’t be surprised if O’Hanlin is in there. He’s a bit of a boozer, as you probably know and he often stays in there ’til midnight. If you make it OK then you’re on your own and me and the Sarge want nothing to do with it anymore because it’s as shonky as a double headed penny.”
He got up and left me without giving me a chance to ask any questions and I could tell he was a bit nervous anyway. And he was making me a bit nervous too. I felt I might need a bit of support so I went back to the Duty Room and sat down to think things out for a bit. Then I phoned the Officers’ Mess to ask if anyone knew where the C.O. was and as luck would have it he was in the Mess and was just about to leave and go home. I asked him to drop in at the Duty Room ‘if he had a minute to spare’.
I think things are about to get interesting and he did tell me to let him know as soon as I knew something. So I waited.
Not one of my best days
The C.O’s car stopped outside the Duty Room and I walked out to meet him. I didn’t want anyone listening in so we stood under an old Red Gum tree that stood proudly in a little grassed area that was the RSM’s pride and joy.
I explained to the Boss about “the Annex” and I mentioned Captain O’Hanlin.
“When will you be going to look at this?”
“I thought about 2300, Sir. Everyone should be asleep by then and it’s about my time to do the ‘drive around’ so I can be gone for a while and nobody will be concerned if I’m not back right on time.”
“I’ll be bloody concerned, Captain. You just keep your wits about you and ring me as soon as you get back. And that’s an order, Captain.”
“Oh, and John. Best of luck, son.”
One of the regular duties was for the Duty Officer and the Sergeant to take turns to drive around the base just checking that security lights were an and locked doors were in fact locked. One area was across the main road to an area of old sheds and storerooms. These sheds housed old Centurion Tanks and other equipment that had come back from Viet Nam. It was possible to spin out your patrol for about half an hour more that usual without anybody noticing.
I did my patrol fairly quickly and then parked down at the back of the Armaments Wing and decided to do an inspection round the outside first looking at all doors and checking all locks. I know that is what I decided to do but I don’t know how far I got. What I do know is that I woke up in the Duty room with on of my mates holding my hand. Captain Cassidy was the unit Medical Officer and he kept saying, “Don’t worry, Mate. You’re going to be O.K.”
The following is an extract from Sergeant Ernie Johnston’s report which he handed to the C.O. that night;
“I was the Duty Sergeant for tonight and at 2255 hrs Captain Gordon proceeded to conduct the usual ‘drive around’. The ‘drive around’ can take from 20 minutes up to 35 minutes unless an incident occurs. When the Captain had failed to return by 2345 hrs I was very concerned and gave the duty driver instructions to ‘mind the shop’ and I decided to go and have a look for him. I decided to conduct the search by driving the route in reverse order. When I reached the Armaments Wing I noticed the Duty Vehicle parked around the back underneath the Northern Security light. That is the light closest to Mech Wing. The engine of the vehicle was running and I assumed that the Captain had left it running to keep the car warm. But on further inspection I noticed that the driver’s side door was open.
I walked around the building and door number five was open. I went in and noticed a light at the very end of the building coming from a door that I had never noticed before. Captain Gordon was lying in the doorway unconscious. He was bleeding from a cut in the back of his head. I immediately called the Duty Room and instructed the Duty Driver to close the front gate and to call the C.O., and Captain Cassidy. I then covered Captain Gordon with a blanket from my own vehicle. I did not want to move him in case I caused him any further damage.
That is all that I can say about the incident. I waited for the M.O. to arrive and then went back to the Duty Room.
That’s all I can say about that evening. Although I do remember that Ramona arrive quite soon after and she was quite worried.
Captain O’Hanlin’s statement
I don’t know if the next bit was a few days or a few hours or a whole bloody week. All I know is a lot of people came and went and I was a tiny bit confused.
First of all Captain Moffat the Adjutant came in. It was she whose place I had taken as Duty Officer.
“Oh, John. What if it had been me? I could have been raped. I am so glad it was you. I don’t mean that. It should have been me. I am so sorry. What happened? I shouldn’t ask it will confuse you. Oh am so sorry. I’ll do your next Duty Officer for you. Make sure you tell me.”
I was glad when she left. Then she came back.
“And I got that Ramona record. It’s so lovely.”
I don’t know exactly all that happened but I have learned most of it from different sources.
Apparently my friend the Adjutant really loved the Ramona record and played it to her boyfriend whose party she went to. AND the darling Adjutant just knew that I had wanted the record to play to my ‘wife’. She had not, of course been at the dinner table with the weedy little wimpy rat faced Ramona husband so she can’t be blamed for her subsequent actions.
The subsequent action to which I am referring is she took the record of the Bachelors singing their hit song ‘Ramona” around to my house and gave it to Ramona saying that I had asked her to get it for her and in the circumstances she was sure Ramona would love to have it. I, of course knew nothing about this, because I, of course, know very little about the workings of a female brain.
But to get back to business. The Colonel arrived.
“Well, Captain, they tell me you won’t die and I suppose I’m happy about that. But we haven’t a lot to go on. Captain O’Hanlin is confined to quarters until things are sorted out and I have sent Sergeant Monroe in to make a complete and thorough inspection of “The Annex”. I would appear that O’Hanlin has been developing a sort of Small Arms Museum and we aren’t at all sure what the hell is going on. I’m happy you are going to be OK but it certainly looks as if there is something that’s not kosher.”
The Colonel arrived. The Colonel left.
Sergeant Monroe arrived.
“We took a statement from O’Hanlin. I think he’s as black as a lump of doggy do but I can’t prove anything yet. The “Smarmy Bastard” in Canberra sends his regards, which is quite something. If you are up to it I want you to read the Captain’s statement and see if it helps you remember anything.”
So, therefore, to keep you happy. Herewith is the Captain’s Statement.
I was working late at night on the evening of February 27th when I was alerted to a sound in the workshop. My office is in the annex at the back of the Wing where I have established a museum, which has been approved under admin order 775/23 of Dec/83. The museum has many very valuable items of interest and the necessity to collate and catalogue these items requires me to spend time outside my normal hours of work. I am often worried about security and since my recent hospitalisation for a heart murmur I have been quite easily upset.
On the evening of the incident I was working in the Museum when I heard a very quiet sound of a lock being turned. As I have said I am quite nervous and I was worried that someone was breaking in to the Museum. I picked up a piece of wood that was on my desk and stood at the door. The door opened and a person walked stealthily into the room. I hit him on the back of the head and ran out of the room and the building and ran quickly up to the Officers’ Mess and went to my room.
It was now quite late and the barman had left but I went to the bar and poured myself a strong glass of whisky. I will fix up the barman tomorrow.
That is all I can say.
O’Hanlin’s statement didn’t clear up anything. But I am sure the bastard is lying.
They had transferred me to the RAP, which for you uninitiated is the Regimental Aid Post and Cassidy was being his usual fantastic self.
Late in the evening Ramona asked to see me.
Ramona came in and I’m not too sure how I felt about that. It’s that old statement, “You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone.” I tried to be cool and distant with the hope that it would help.
“You didn’t need to come in to see me. They’re looking after me well enough.”
“I didn’t come in for a visit. I came to take you home.”
“Your home or my home?
“Our home you silly, blind and bad-tempered bastard.”
“What about Mr. Wonderful, your husband?”
She laughed. A sort of laugh. Then she leaned over and kissed me.
“I’ve been playing my song all day. It was sweet of you to get it for me.”
“What about Mr. Wonderful?”
“There is no Mr. Wonderful and no husband. We could see that you were getting a bit distracted and I thought it would be in the best interests of the investigation if you didn’t have stupidity on your mind. So Canberra located their closest agent and sent him along to play ‘hubby’. I’m sorry it upset you so much but I could see how you were feeling and I wanted to break the link without having to put too much in words. But then you went and did that record thing with the “Ramona” song. I don’t know just where you rate on the “Naive” scale but you didn’t have a clue.”
I just lay in the bed and said nothing. Trying to understand is futile, getting angry is counter-productive and going all gooey is just plain stupid. Captain Cassidy came in at that moment.
“Well get up and get dressed. I thought you’d be jumping to go home. A little whack on the back of the scone must have addled your brain. I need the bed for a soldier with a splinter in his backside. Come on. Get out of here.”
I sent Ramona out and got dressed. In the car on the way home she said very little, but I did notice a small, satisfied smile on her face. We pulled into the driveway.
“Oh, and because you are an invalid I thought you should move into the room with the big warm bed.”
I don’t want to go into any more detail other that to say, it was nice to get home.
But it didn’t last long. The front door bell rang and a minute later my ‘wife’ ushered in Sergeant Monroe, the Colonel and Mr. Smarmy Bastard from Canberra. Ramona pulled chairs into the bedroom and brought in a bottle of Single Malt Islay Whisky. Mr. Smarmy asked for a cup of coffee instead. Poor man!
The Colonel started. “So have you had a chance to read O’Hanlon’s statement? What did you think?”
I think he was addressing all of us but they all waited for me to answer.
“Well if he was so worried about his Museum, why did he leave me lying in the door? Why didn’t he drag me out and lock the door?”
“Panicked I guess.”
“But if he’s the weapons supplier he’d have locked the door, surely?”
“If he is the gun supplier why didn’t he bloody well kill me?”
“Maybe we should ask him,” said Smarmy B. “And we should do it now.”
The Colonel agreed. “I think we need to get him out here straight away. Ramona, could you ring the duty Room and get them to get the Military Police to bring him here ASAP.”
“Can we get the MPs to come that quickly?” I asked.
“There’s one sitting outside O’Hanlin’s door right now, bored out of his tiny pink mind and he’ll love to go for a drive. Ramona can you take this whisky away and when he comes in bring it out again and give us each one but leave him out. Bring him a glass of coke or something. He is a genuine alcoholic and the sight of us drinking Single Malt Scotch will unnerve him.”
“You can be quite nasty when you need to be,” she replied.
Ten minutes later they came in, Captain O’Hanlin, Corporal Crozer the M.P. and Apprentice Wilson the duty driver. Ramona took them into the living room and turned the TV set on with the volume just a little louder than necessary.
O’Hanlin was nervous. He sat with his head down and I don’t think he even knew who was in the room unless he was asked a direct question. When he saw me, sitting up in bed, his face coloured and he apologised quite profusely. “I’m really very sorry I hit you but I thought you were a burglar or something.”
“Then why didn’t you close and lock the door and call the Duty Room straight away?” asked the Colonel. “If you were …..” he made a show of looking for the exact words in the Captain’s statement, “…..worried that someone was breaking in to the Museum, why didn’t you secure the Museum. You’ve been in the Army long enough to know that that is standard. And what is also standard is not to leave another member lying injured on the ground. I think we have enough here for a disciplinary hearing. At least.”
Ramona came in with four whisky glasses and a glass of milk. O’Hanlin started shaking. He knew he was in trouble. Then it was Sgt Monroe’s turn. We were about to see a bit of ‘bad cop’. He stood up and walked over to O’Hanlin. He towered over him and every time he wanted to emphasise a point he lifted his finger and O’Hanlin flinched.
“We know what your game is. Best thing for you is to tell the whole story. The Colonel asked you about five questions, and you haven’t said a bloody word. And don’t start whimpering you sneaky little drunk.”
The fact that the interrogator was still in his Sergeant’s uniform and the Captain was in his uniform made Foster’s questioning even more emphatic. A Sergeant doesn’t talk to a Captain like that unless he knows he is on solid ground. O’Hanlin knew that.
“I panicked. I already said that. And when I saw that I’d hit the Duty Officer I knew I was in trouble. And I needed a drink. Can I have one of those? Please?”
No one answered. He went on.
“And I knew the game was up. I knew you’d rumbled me.”
Foster jumped up again. “What game was up? What had we rumbled?”
“You know. The museum and all.”
“…..and all what?”
Then he stopped. He had said too much. Mr ASIO started thinking like a lawyer.
“I think we should stop where we are. Captain O’Hanlin I would advise you to find yourself a good lawyer. Colonel, what is that M.Ps name please?”
He got up and went to the door, “Corporal Crozer could you come in here please. Thank you. Corporal, please take this gentleman back to his room and post someone on his door. And get him a drink when you get him back.”
They all left. I was tired and wanted to sleep.
Around about midnight I woke up. Ramona was beside me and she woke up.
And then we talked for a little while.
I wake up
Apparently I was as bright as a button when we interviewed Captain O’Hanlin but later that night my temperature shot through the roof and I was pretty crook. In fact I went into a coma – I don’t recall if I saw bright white lights at the end of a tunnel – and I only became aware of things again after about ten days. I had a blood clot on my brain and they were all very concerned. That was quite nice of them I suppose.
When the doctors said I was OK again there was a big meeting at home. The Colonel, the Sergeant and little Miss Wonderful sat around and filled me in.
“We have had to let O’Hanlin go,” the Sergeant said.
“We only have suspicions and when he had calmed down he became very rational and logical.”
“Yes. His reason for running off was seen as the sort of thing he would do as soon as he realised he had hit the Duty Officer. That he had told no one you were there has been accepted as the result of him panicking. He is known to be a heavy drinker and so it has been decided to let the whole matter rest. It’s a real shame because we really thought we were on to something. So your discharge can be OK’d and you are free to go.”
I wasn’t too happy about all that. I thought for a minute or two and they sat and said nothing.
“So, it’s a case of ‘Thanks a lot. Sorry about your head. Sorry we helped bust up your marriage. And good-bloody-bye soldier’. If it’s all the same with you I think I’ll hang around for the time being.”
“Yes, of course. We still need a Science instructor and with the case being closed off we could also use you for Advanced Maths in the Elec Wing. Of course you can stay. I’ll leave you discharge papers on the file until you are ready.”
The Colonel and the Sarge left. Ramona sat and looked at me for quite some while before saying anything.
“What are you planning now? I can see your brain spinning.”
“I think we were close to the truth and I want to find out just how close. It’s all very well for you guys to close the case but I’m the bunny who nearly got killed. I’m staying. But I guess you’ll go back to Canberra and do what your told.”
“I guess I might have to, but I‘d rather stay as well. If I go back to Canberra it will look very odd. I am supposed to be your wife. Not many wives would run off after their husband had just been as sick as you were. And if you think you can do something else you might need a bit of help.”
I was secretly pleased. But I wasn’t sure whether the Smarmy B in Canberra would agree. Still, we’ll see what the morrow brings.
The morrow brought with it a little bit of a surprise. The rest of the officers in Education Section seemed very pleased to see me, which really was a surprise because I had spent a lot of time ignoring them and being a pain in the neck. But the biggest surprise was O’Hanlin. He was in the Ed staff room and was waiting for me.
“Belting you on the back of the head was one of the best things I’ve done for a long, long time.”
“You nearly killed me, you bastard. How come that was such a great thing to do?”
“Because I scared the hell out of myself so much I’ve given up drinking. I’ve been sober for eleven days now and it’s the first time for fifteen years. So as soon as you have a spare hour or so I want to take you back to the Annex and show you my museum. And I want to make it up to you. I promise not to hit you either.”
Ramona told me the next day that she had to go to Canberra to see her boss and organise to stay with me for a while. She had some accrued leave and wanted to explain that as we were living as man and wife it could arouse suspicion if she left so soon after. Much as we had discussed earlier. She planned to be away for about a week and would stay with her mother who lived in Yass, which is near Canberra.
On the weekend there was another surprise. O’Hanlin asked me if I’d like to go ‘gliding’ with him in Corowa. He was really putting in an effort to make up for whacking me on the scone and although I hadn’t warmed to him he had become reasonably pleasant. I couldn’t think of a decent excuse so I agreed. And anyway I still had my suspicions about the whole affair.
I had never been in a glider although as a very young child I had seen one being hauled into the air on a long rope that was being wound on a drum on the back of an old farm truck. But this time we were going to be pulled into the air behind a little Cessna. Now I understand the theory behind the magic of flight and I have been in huge aeroplanes but my faith is not strong. This time the little plane was going to tow a big glider up into the air and I was not a little concerned. I was a lot concerned.
O’Hanlin explained that we would be towed up until he felt that we were right – whatever ‘right’ meant and then he would pull a little lever and we would be on our own. Then he said, “As soon as we are set free I won’t talk to you so that you can experience the wonder of it all.”
What on earth had happened to the man. He had been a drunk and he had nearly killed me and now he had become a poet! Was he expecting me to go all ‘wonder of the universe and God’s creation’?
The plane revved up and we started rolling with two guys running along beside us holding the wings level. The vibration of the tow plane ran down the towrope and it didn’t make me feel any better. There was one little wheel under us and the two guys left us, the glider lifted off the ground but the tow plane didn’t. Then it did! We climbed and the sound of the plane came along the towrope by magic, along with the vibration. All this time O’Hanlin was gabbering along about what he was doing.
“I’m going to set us free in ten seconds.”
And then silence.
And then a soft gentle sound of the wind rushing past us.
I was in a wonder world of silence and freedom and poetry and all the wonder of the universe and God’s creation.
And I started talking and singing – I think. I’m not sure.
Below me I could see for miles and then I felt that we were losing altitude. O’Hanlin pointed down to the left at a large paddock that had been recently ploughed and seemed to dive toward it. A minute later we were over the paddock and we lifted and my stomach churned. We had found an updraft of warm air and rose a couple of thousand feet.
And then we landed.
This was the best day of the whole stupid wasted episode.
We went into the clubrooms and I stupidly offered to buy a couple of whiskies, forgetting that he was out of a glider and onto a wagon.
But the coffee was good and so was the conversation that came with it.
Coffee and a biscuit
I have to stop calling him O’Hanlin. I thanked Mike profusely for the flight. I may have been a bit over the top but I haven’t had such a magic flight, ever.
He said he was sorry about the whack on the head.
I said no worries, I’m still alive
He asked how long I’d been in the Army.
I told him seven years.
I asked him how long he had.
He said for bloody ever.
And I thought we might be getting somewhere.
Then I apologised for asking him if he wanted a whisky and he said that it was OK and I asked him how long he’d had a problem with drinking.
He said, “17 September 1963.”
So I said I thought that that was obviously significant and maybe he could elaborate.
“I was with the AATTV which you should know was the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. There were two Aussies and a couple of Yanks from US Army Rangers and we were up in the mountains with the Montagnards. The two Yanks were great. They were both from Montana and knew how to look after themselves. I liked them a lot but my Aussie mate was a real bastard. You know the kind. A little bloke who wanted to be a big bloke so he acted tough. I was a Corporal and he was an officer and I believe he is now a Brigadier. Like, man, we were on our own. There was a war going on and there were four of us against the whole of North Viet Nam. I was showing these mountain people how to set a bomb as a booby trap and some kids were playing in the field where I had been working when a God-almighty bang blew five of the little buggers into the sky. I shit myself. All five of the little kids died. The Lieutenant told me it was all my fault and it would be all right and he covered it up.
Later when we got back from ‘Nam he reminded me how he’d looked after me. I started to believe I owed him. The Bastard. But I suppose I did. That’s when I started drinking. September bloody seventeen. Nineteen sixty bloody three. And it’s been like that every bloody day since until I nearly bloody killed you.”
He stopped. And blew a blast of air out of his lungs as if they were full of poison gas.
And he said nothing and we got in the car and drove home.
What a day! Up in the heights of Heaven one moment and down in the depths of Hell in another.
There was a lot more I wanted to learn from my new mate, Mike O’Hanlin. The problem of the stolen Owen Guns was far from my mind.
How close am I getting?
Ramona was still away so I thought I’d return the Gliding Favour by inviting Mike home for a BBQ – he spends all his life in the Officers’ Mess so a trip to a normal house would be a change. We threw a couple of sausages on the plate and because there were no women around we decided to forgo the delights of green vegetables and wholemeal bread. We wrapped the sausages in slices of white bread with a heap of fried onions and mustard and tomato sauce. And then we retired to the lounge.
No beers later we just talked. About nothing. About life the universe and everything and about Viet Nam and about being an alcoholic and about blowing up five little Montagnard kids and it was all my fault because Captain Bloody Hutton told me.
Then we changed the subject and talked about gliding and life the universe and everything again and the answer to the question and then I showed him my Owen Gun and he froze.
While he sat there frozen I ploughed on.
“Isn’t this just a beautiful piece of engineering. To think you can throw it into a swamp and cover it in mud and the bloody thing won’t jam but will keep on firing. There’s no other gun in the world like this is there? I’d love to take it out in the bush and blast away at some old farmer’s corrugated iron shed and write my name in nine mill ammo. Blam! blam! blam! What d’ya say Mike? Wouldn’t you?”
“Actually, mate, I’ve seen more of those than I need to. But does it still work?”
“No. It needs a return spring and I don’t know anyone who can fix it.”
“I’ll fix it,” he said. Just like that. No emotion, no feeling just a deadpan ‘I’ll fix it’.
“Oh wow that’s fantastic. How?”
“I’ll fix it now, tonight if you want. But you can’t tell anyone. You can’t tell that wife of yours and you can’t tell anyone in the Army or anyone anywhere. If you do I’ll probably end up dead and you too as well.”
I was gobsmacked. Was this the end of the whole deal? Was I that close?
“Of course I’ll tell no one,” I lied. “You said ‘tonight’. You said ‘now’. What did you mean?”
“I mean if you take me to the Annex I’ll fix that abortion of a machine in about two minutes.”
We got in my car and drove to the base. The Duty Guard stopped us but when he saw who we were he saluted and opened the gate. We drove down to the wing and went in and on down the back to the Annex. It wasn’t late but I felt a chill in the air as we walked through the door that I nearly walked through about ten days ago.
Inside I saw an array of small arms and machine guns like I’d not seen before.
Mike was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He took my gun and stripped it. He had obviously done the same thing a thousand times before. He pulled out the broken return spring, dropped it into a box and put a bright new one in its place. He reassembled the gun, handed it to me, smiled an ironic smile and said, “There, did you time me? Two minutes. I bet it was less than that.”
I knew I was close to unraveling the mystery but I didn’t want to push it.
“Thanks mate. I’ll drive you up to the Mess. If you were still drinking I’d buy you a bottle full. However what do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Thanks any way I’m off to bed.”
And he turned and walked away. And I went home screaming inside what I am told is my brain. But my brain didn’t tell me what I should be thinking.
Swings and Roundabouts
Ramona came back from Canberra with an order for me to go straight to Canberra to visit the Smarmy B from ASIO. She didn’t fill me in on how her interview went. So next morning I was off. I drove my own car because I wanted to get a photograph of the Dog on the Tuckerbox on the road to Gundagai.
I walked into his office after being kept waiting for about half an hour, which is always a bad sign. First shock was to see him in Full Colonel uniform and wearing the green lanyard and the insignia of the Royal Australian Army Intelligence Corps.
I stood to attention as becomes an Army Officer in the presence of a Colonel. He put out his hand to shake mine and I said, “I thought you were ASIO. I never knew you were Army.”
“Always Army son. Just got a little shoved sideways for a time.”
He was being quite friendly but I felt it was a put on. He removed his Jacket and hung it on a hook behind his door.
“Sit down son, and tell me about this O’Hanlin chap. What do you make of him? I can’t say I saw much to like when we talked to him at your place. It’s a wonder he was still in the Army. I believe he stuffed up in ‘Nam.”
I told the Colonel what I had found out. I mentioned his so called accident with the five Montagnard children and the effect it had had on him. I mentioned that he had stopped drinking and thought it was a good sign.
“Oh don’t let him fool you. Once a drunk always a drunk. I’ve never trusted a sober alcoholic.”
The Colonel was beginning to annoy me. “Anyway Sir, I would like to keep pushing the case because I think I might get to the truth soon.”
And just as stopped he started. The nice warm and gentle natured Colonel went red in the face and almost shouted at me.
“I thought you were told to stop your bloody meddling. You nearly got yourself killed. You unearthed nothing more than some stupid drunk who wants to be a museum curator. I am giving you a direct order to stop. Is that clear, Captain?”
I stood to attention and turned to leave. I was dumbfounded by the speed at which he had changed.
“You are to return to your duties as an Education Officer and you are to leave any other duties to those more competent to deal with them. Now you may go.
As I went to leave the room I glanced at the jacket on the back of the door. The Colonel had never told me his name and I had never asked for it. I knew him as “That Smarmy Bastard from Canberra.” But there on his jacket was his name badge, Colonel J W Hutton. I remembered the name but I wasn’t sure why.
I drove North from Canberra until I hit the Hume Highway at Yass and turned left. I don’t think I remember any of the trip because my mind was turning and jumbling. There was something not right and I didn’t know what it was. Colonel Hutton – there was that name again – had supposedly selected me, in particular, to discover what I could about the theft of the Owen Guns and when I get close he pulls the carpet out from under my feet. And what did Uncle Foster have to do with that, or did he have anything to do with it?
I drove on down the Hume and stopped at Gundagai and took a photo of the dog. There’s an old Australian story about a bullocky whose team got bogged near Gundagai and he went of to get help. He sat his dog on his tucker box in which he stored all his food, to guard it. But the bullocky died and never went back. But the faithful dog stayed and never left the box. So the people of Gundagai erected a statue.
My plan had been to get the photo just for the photo’s sake but as I drove on down the highway I mused a bit on the determination of the dog. I know it is probably myth but I thought that whatever Hutton – why do I remember that name? I’m not good with names – whatever he told me to do I might just keep it under my hat and do a little more sneaking around.
I got home at a reasonable hour a bit after dinnertime. I said a quick hello to Ramona and said I had to go and have a quick chat with Mike O’Hanlin.
“I thought you’d been told to leave the case alone,” she said. I didn’t stop to ask how she knew. It didn’t register.
I drove out to the base and went up to the Officers’ Mess. Mike was watching Television and drinking Lemon, Lime and Bitters.
“So I believe you’ve been up to Canberra for a day trip. What was that all about? Getting a discharge are you?”
“No. I had to talk to some Colonel from Army Intelligence. A guy called Hutton. J W Hutton.”
“Did you say Hutton? J W Hutton? Is that bastard a full Colonel now?”
“Yes. How d’you know him?”
“How do I know him? I know him since the day I blew five innocent little Monty kids up in the sky. And the bastard’s been a thorn in my side ever since. And what’s he got to do with you anyway?”
“I had to do some work for him and now he doesn’t want me to. But we were talking about you and he said he didn’t know you.”
“What a lying son of a …” He stopped as if he could go no farther. “That lying bastard has been putting the hard word on me ever since that day in the mountains. I’ve got something on my heart that I’ve never told anyone and the first time I feel like talking it’s to a guy I nearly killed. I wont tell you now. It’s too late. But tomorrow after knock off come down to the Annex.”
Lock Down Drill!!
Tomorrow after Knock off didn’t work out. It was my turn for Duty Officer again.
I spoke to Mike to reorganise things.
“I can’t come down after Knock off because I’m on Duty but if you promise not to kill me this time I will be doing a security drive about 2200 hours. If you go down then I’ll drop in.”
“Are you coming up to the Mess for dinner tonight? I’ll tell you very quickly what’s on my mind and then I’ll fill in the details later. OK?”
“That’ll have to do. I can’t get out of D.O. anyway.”
I had a bit of free time before I started my duty so I went home to have a shower and change my clothes. I told Ramona I was going to have a big chat with Mike and I mentioned my feeling that he was about to tell me all.
She seemed a bit negative underneath but was trying hard to hide it.
You know how, on a late Autumn day, just before Winter sets in for good there are days of bright sunshine and clear air. But as the day goes on there is a chill in the air that you don’t feel until it becomes quite cold and you run inside to set a fire going. I had felt that Ramona was a little distant but all of a sudden I felt an icy chill. I had no time to dwell on it and went back to work.
I did my ORs’ Mess inspection as usual. Then I sat in the Duty Room while the Sergeant went off for his dinner. The young Apprentice was with me and wanted to talk about life in Viet Nam and what is was like being an officer. Nice enough young kid. Bit naive, but he’ll make it. Seemed to have a reasonable amount of common sense.
When the Sergeant came back I went up to dinner. Mike was waiting and it was easy to see he was nervous and apprehensive.
“Come over here and sit down,” he said. “When you told me that Hutton was denying that he knew me a lot of things fell into place. First of all I have never really known how I could have set that bomb that killed those kids. All my training was done with dummy bombs and fuses until the very end when we’d have a live firing. And same when I was instructing. Hutton had often said he thought a live firing exercise was much more effective. The question is did he replace some of my gear?
Secondly he has always said he would have me charged with negligence at least or manslaughter at worst unless I shut up and did what I was told.
What I had to do was repair Owen Guns that didn’t need repairing. For example someone would bring in a gun just to be serviced and there would be a tag giving a part number, like that spring on yours. But on all those ones the part wouldn’t be defective but I had to replace it and throw the good part into a specially marked rubbish bin.
After a while there would be enough parts in the bin to reconstruct a complete weapon, but a weapon with no paperwork to identify it. When you come down later tonight I’ll show you.”
I finished my dinner and went back to the duty room. It was a quiet night except for about three cars that came through the gate. They all had officers in them and they headed up to the Mess. I let the young Apprentice do all the waving through, as he was so keen to notch up new experiences.
I told the Sergeant where I was going. What happened last time was part of general knowledge.
“You be careful down there, Sir,” he joked. “I don’t what to have to write up a report on any dead Duty Officer.”
I laughed and decided to walk down. The lights were on and I made my way to the back where the Annex was.
Mike was there waiting but he didn’t know I’d arrived. He was sitting at his desk and I knew straight away he was dead. A pistol was in his hand but I knew enough to know he hadn’t done it. Someone who is left-handed isn’t going to use their right hand to commit suicide.
I rang the duty room. “Call a ‘Lock Down’ drill. I want every one in their rooms now and that includes NCOs as well.
And get every Warrant Officer who is in the Sergeants Mess to stand to. Tell them it’s a Lock Down. Tell them, but only them that this isn’t a drill. No one is to leave the base and tell them that anyone trying to leave is to be stopped. Any way they can. Tell any Officers it is only a drill but they are to stay where they are. Tell them these orders have come from the Colonel. Then get the Colonel, get Sergeant Foster and ask the Colonel to get the local Police Inspector. Now.
“Put that young Apprentice on the gate and tell him he is not to talk to anyone, repeat, anyone until after I have spoken to him. Don’t tell anyone anything except that it’s a full “Lock Down” drill. Then get down here.
It isn’t a drill.”
Lock Down Drill; Part two
I really wanted to ring Ramona and ask her to come in because she was, after all on the team. But Due to the Lock Down I would be breaking regulations if I did.
When Sergeant Foster came down I briefed him quickly and then we closed and locked the Annex leaving poor Mike in there on his own. I don’t imagine he gave it any thought. We both went up to the Duty Room and waited for the Colonel. While we waited I called the young Apprentice in.
“How many cars did you let through tonight?”
“Do you know who they were?”
“Yes Sir, I took their car Rego numbers Sir. There was Major Admin, Sir, with his wife. Then there was one Captain, I don’t know his name Sir but he’s CO D Company Sir.”
“OK. That’s two. You said four.”
“Yes Sir then the Madam Adjutant came in Sir, on her own. I knew straight away it was her Sir, because of that little red MG sports car she drives Sir. And the fourth car I should have said earlier because it came in second, Sir. It was a big black car and there was a Colonel in it Sir. Not our Colonel but I let him through because he was with your wife Sir and she said she could vouch for him.”
“Are you sure it was my wife. Describe her. No, describe the Officer. Was he a Colonel or a Lieutenant Colonel?”
“He was a full Colonel, Sir. He had one more pip on his shoulder than our Colonel has. Did I do something wrong, Sir?”
“No lad. You didn’t do anything wrong. Did that Officer and my wife leave or are they still on the base?
“Yes Sir, I mean No Sir, I mean No they are not on the base and Yes they left about ten minutes after they came. It was about five minutes before you left to go down to Armaments Wing, Sir. Did I do the wrong thing, Sir?’
“No. Don’t worry. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve done well. I’ll write that in a report to your Company Commander. Thanks and go up to the ORs’ Mess and get yourself something to drink.”
I turned to Foster. “We have been had. It was Hutton all along. And I’ve got a horrible feeling about Ramona as well.”
“If what O’Hanlin told you is true then it very well could be Hutton. …….and Ramona.”
Without waiting for the Colonel I cancelled the “Lock Down”. There was nothing to be gained. As soon as that happened Major Admin came storming in asking what right I had to call a drill without OK’ing it with him first.
“Sorry Major,” I was about to say but the Colonel walked in behind him and beat me to it. “It was my call Major and the Captain was just following my instructions. I’ll brief you tomorrow morning. Now if you could go back up to the Mess and tell everyone that the Colonel apologises and one round of drinks all round and put it on my account.”
A neat way to cool down a few annoyed officers.
The Colonel turned to the Duty Sergeant who had just come in and asked him to get the RSM. I guess he had to cool a few Warrant Officers down as well.
“And now, Captain let’s have it?”
The end of my affair
I told the Colonel what had happened. I told him everything that Mike had told me about someone he knew as Hutton and how he had been made to build untraceable Owen Guns. Then I explained about how the Smarmy Bastard was the same Hutton and that Hutton made a big show of not knowing Mike at all. I was pretty clear that he was lying then. I outlined exactly how agitated he was when I said Mike was going to talk to me. And then he and Ramona turning up unannounced and, in my opinion, murdering Mike. One question I still didn’t have an answer to was whether Ramona was in it with Hutton or whether he had some kind of hold over her as he had with Mike.
I was seriously worried about Ramona. For a thousand different reason. Was I in love with her? Of course I wasn’t. Was she safe? Was she involved? Who the heck was she? And a million other questions.
“You’ve done enough here son”, said the Colonel. “Go and see about that wife of yours.”
That was funny, coming from him. He knew my real wife was long gone. He knew that Ramona was just a part of the set up. He also knew I had developed a feeling for her.
“Go and see how Ramona is,” he said.
I drove home. There were a few lights on in the house but that was normal – we left them on as part of a security regime. The house next door was a different matter. There were teenagers there and there was often loud music emanating from the hellish depths of youth.
There was nothing wrong. There was nothing strange. There were dishes in the sink that she would wash later. There were clothes on the clothes horse in front of the fire. I walked from room to room and stopped and stood looking at the wall. My Owen gun was gone. The Thompson Sub-machine gun that the Viet Cong had so cleverly copied was gone.
In novels and movies there is always a bit where the hero has some villain put a gun in his back and say something very chilling. And the hero always says something clever.
The pain is horrific. A sharp and severe pain stopped me as someone jabbed something in my back. Right on the bone. There is no chance to think of clever defensive moves like you see in the movies. In real life nothing overrides the sheer intensity of the pain.
“If you move I will kill you.” Ramona said.
There was no way I could move. Don’t believe what you see in the movies. Don’t believe what Graham Greene or Len Deighton tell you. There was no way I could move.
“I won’t kill you but I will put a bullet in the base of your spine and you will never walk again and you will never make love to a woman again.”
I was glad about that. The instance of the pain had gone. I started thinking.
“..and here I was thinking you loved me. Big mistake!”
Then there was an interruption to the happy family reunion and the Smarmy Bastard spoke.
“You are a silly stupid man.” That was gedood for starters. I had no argument with him. “You were too lucky for your own good. You were supposed to look for clues and muddy the waters. But no! Mr Bloody Clever Bastard had to go and stumble on the truth. I’m so sorry but Ramona was wrong. We will have to kill you. You know too much. But at least you will know why.”
“Know why what” I said.
“You will know that that poor stupid soft hearted moron called O’Hanlin wouldn’t know how to set a booby trap. That was my specialty. And you will know that the Black Widow Spider does really exist and you will know that she will be the one to kill you. So, Goodbye idiot child.”
The very next thing that happened was quite fortuitous. If it had not happened you would not have a clue of the truth. I know it sounds like a third grade western but in all truth a shot rang out and Ramona fell to the floor.
I was quite relieved that Sgt Foster and the Colonel had been quick enough to understand the reality of the situation. It was the Sergeant who actually shot the woman I thought I might have loved. But then again – ain’t love funny.
There’s not a lot else to say, so I’ll say no more. But I am glad to be alive.